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SOMETHING NEXT TO NOTHING.
“ Reputation is an idle and most false imposition ; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving."— Othello.
“ Rumores vacui, verbaque inania
Et par sollicito fabula somnio.”-Senecæ Troad.
That strange but very amusing story of the man who lost his shadow, is supposed by the curious in critical mysteries, to have been intended as a type of the value of character; and, if any moral was in the author's mind, when he indulged his taste for the whimsical, it possibly might have been something of the sort. There certainly is much to be said in favour of such an allegory, of the kind that would go down with the dealers in commonplace. The characters of most men, if not in toto mere shadows, have more dark lines than lights in their penciling: and, moreover, when calumny has saddled a poor fellow with a bad character, it sticks to him through life like his shadow; insomuch, that it would require no less potent an interference, than that of the old gentleman in grey, to relieve him of the incumbrance. The simile, however, breaks down in its most essential particular; for Peter, it appears, suffered manifold vexations, annoyances, and disqualifications through the loss of his shadow; whereas, the loss of character is by no means universally followed by the bad consequences, which superficial moralists love to attribute to a deficiency of good name. In our journey through life, which is now further advanced than it is quite agreeable to reflect upon, we have very generally found that an extraordinarily good name has turned out, in the working, to be too much of a good thing, and, therefore, good for nothing; whereas the very best way to get on in the world is, to have no definite character at all: for,
true no-meaning puzzles more than sense,” so true no-character baffles the malice of the world, and deprives it of the most convenient handle for turning a man's fortunes inside out. Accordingly, we find the more knowing part of the creation, when they happen to have been overburthened with the commodity, taking the earliest opportunity to get rid of it, as they would of a bad shilling: nor can we blame them for their assiduity in this particular; being satisfied that many who make the greatest figure upon town are altogether divested of any ground of pretence to such a possession. We have, indeed, only to name the gentlemen, thus situated, to satisfy our readers, and put the question to rest at once and for ever; but we dislike scurrility, cannot afford to defend an action for libel, and have lately had our attention awakened by those great moralists of the day, the daily Journalists, to the fact, that duelling is very foolish, very dangerous, and otherwise not quite according to Hoyle. By-the-by, and apropos to that matter, it does seem rather singular, that the best possible instructors never should have found this out, as long as the practice was confined to gentlefolks ; as if duelling, like lying, were too precious a thing to he wasted; or, as if it were not a more serious evil, that men of honour and respectability should make themselves more scarce than they naturally are, than that
“ made us
the raffs and scamps should take this mode to destroy each other, and save the public the expense of providing for them according to law.
Without, however, incurring any of the aforesaid risks, it will not be difficult, we imagine, to prove our thesis, and to show that character, after all, is not exactly that sine quâ non in society, which some folks will think. It is notorious that in every village there are, and ever have been, one or more persons, who dedicate their idle hours, not to the amusement of practising as an attorney—though that's no trifling evil in society—but to taking away the characters of every human being in the vicinity, in the pious and Christian hope of doing them as much mischief as possible. But, though they do sometimes succeed in putting the parties to much temporary inconvenience, yet it does not appear upon record that they, whose characters have been thus taken away, fare, in the long run, a bit the worse for the process. Generally speaking, indeed, those thus assailed with the most fury, turn out to be the most thriving members of the community, which surely could not be the case, if the robbery were so very serious an injury, or if in “ taking that which nought enriches him," the calumniator really poor indeed.”
Some might, perhaps, attempt to account for this fact, on an hypothesis of the birds usually pecking the ripest cherries. The miserable and the disappointed, they will say, are not worth the powder and shot of calumny, or, if they be, afford no prise to malevolence; while the mere spectacle of success is mortifying to the vanity of the stationary, and suffices in itself to set the tongue of detraction in movement. In corroboration of the idea, it must be observed that the moment of any accession of good fortune is the time uniformly chosen for a vigorous overflow of venom against the prosperous. When one tabby, for instance, has had a run of good luck, greater than usual, at the loo-table, and has become as eminent a fishmonger almost as Crocky himself, then it is that all the others awaken to the discovery, that the party knows a great many more tricks than are good for her soul, and that there is more in her winnings than meets the eye; exclaiming (as soon as she is out of hearing), in the language of the goddesses against Venus, in “ The Golden Pippin,"
“ Such things are shocking ma'am :
Cheats are provoking, ma'am.” Thus, too, when a young lady is about to be married, (we crave pardon, to be led to the hymeneal altar,) the occasion is seized by her female friends for hinting that she has a cast in her eye, though some people (with a marked emphasis on the pronoun) may, perhaps, not think it disagreeable;” or for mentioning that one of her shoulders is a thought higher than the other; “ to be sure it is not seen, when her mother has dressed her.” When a tradesman serves for sheriff, or gets knighted for a Pey Nicholson address, he will, on the same principle, become vehemently suspected of bankruptcy; and let my lady, his wife, then look that all her antecedents are free from reproach; for, if there should be any blot in her 'scutcheon, by the Lord, it will be hit. Her grcat aunt--she that was the clear-starcher-or her cousin, who many years ago was butler to old Lady Grandairs, will be dragged out of their graves, “with twenty mortal murders on their heads,” to bear supernatural evidence against her upstart conceit. It is at epochs like these also,
that anonymous letters are especially rife, charitably directed to prevent the victim of good luck from being too much upset by his advancement in life; and, lest he should be led astray by the congratulations offered to his face, kindly imparting to him the all that is said, or is not said, behind his back. Some, too, there are, whose rage gives them courage to speak out on these occasions; not letting them rest satisfied to stab in the dark, at the risk of not witnessing all the writhing of the wounded. Such are the downright plain-dealing people, who are “ determined to tell the gentleman a piece of their mind,” and have no notion of some people's impudence.” It is truly astonishing how small a matter will provoke persons of this description to such discharges of bile. So petty a consideration as a new bonnet, will set the tongues of a whole parish-church wagging; and the reader may have heard of the Irish market woman, who could not contain her gall at a sister artist's rise in life; but, after a vain struggle, vented her outraged feelings in accents of concentrated rage, exclaiming, “ its mighty grand you are, with a new strap to your basket!”
But whatever truth there may be in all this, we doubt very much whether it be the whole truth; on the contrary, we firmly believe that there is something more direct in the influence of detraction-something, as it were, fattening in its proper nature-or haply that it acts as a stimulus upon certain constitutions, urging them to additional exertions to get on in life, if it be but for the mere purpose of retaliating on their aggressors, and stirring up in them a new dose of envy. If success be the peculiar bull's-eye of detraction—if the slave must mount the triumphal chariot to mock the conqueror, and make him feel his humanity,—it by no means follows that the operations of calumny are suspended under less brilliant contingencies. We are most abused on great occasions, because we are then most open to abuse--that is, more prominently before our special friends and the public in general: but the work is never at a stand still ; or if the volcano does not absolutely flame, it is not the less concocting materials for a future eruption. There are few, indeed, even among the humblest, who would not be horrified at their own bad character, if they could, Janus-like, turn an eye behind them, and get a peep at themselves, from the point of view in which they are seen by their dearest friends : and yet the world goes round !
Be the causation, however, what it may, nothing is more certain than that they who get on in the world, and obtain a start in the race of life, are the especial marks of public malevolence, and are accordingly stripped of their characters with the least mercy. All millionaires are cheats; all reigning toasts are coquettes, at the very least; all successful authors plagiarists and coxcombs, and all popular tragedians have the journalists in pay, and know no more of Shakspeare than the scene-shifter; while every eminent distiller is a rogue in spirit, and every great importer of wheat and barley a rogue in grain. The millionaire, meantime, becomes a bi-millionaire--the beauty obtains a husband—the author (if he be either a first-rate genius or a peer of the realm) raises his price on his publisher, and sells an extra edition -the tragedian draws houses like an architect, draws tears like a forcingpump, and, if he is prudent, invests largely in the three per cents the dealer in fermented agricultural produce holds whole acres of gin-palaces, and, quemlibet occidit populariter, becomes more popular than Morrison-and the rogue in grain is made a baronet, buys a seat
in the House, and gratefully votes for the corn-laws, to which he owes his fortune. What injury, then, has loss of character done to these persons ?-what impediment has it cast in the way of their rising ?none, absolutely none.
The closer we look into life, the clearer will this truth come out. Accordingly, we shall see that there are few things more detrimental to a rapid advance, than a too fastidious regard for character. They who are always glancing to the right and left, in their anxiety about the qu'en dira-t-on, will be very apt to miss their clutch at the forelock of Time, and arrive at Fortune's booking-office when all her coaches are full. Reputation is too often no better than the tin-kettle tied to the dog's tail; the more noise it makes, the more enemies, and the more obstruction; and he that looks back for applause, while he should look forward for profit, stands a fair chance of falling into a ditch, or breaking his head against a post or a brick wall.
In some of the very best employments in society, character is not merely indifferent, it is absolutely ruinous; and the getting rid of it an essential preliminary to setting up in business. Thus, a bad name for sharp practice is a letter of credit to an attorney ; a reputation for dosing his patients gives a young physician the friendship of the apothecaries; and a character for being the very devil with the women is the fortunehunter's “ short method” with well-jointured widows. A bashful Irishman would have little chance in a boarding-school for young ladies; and a pretty recommendation would it be with the free and independent electors of Sell-seat, to have it circulated against you, that you kept a conscience which would not allow you to bribe. Juvenal, long ago, recommended those who would indulge a taste for horticulture, not to be too chary of reputation; and (if they mean to get on in life) to dare something worthy of the stone jug.
“ Aude aliquid brevibus Gyaris, et carcere dignum,
Si vis esse aliquis : probitas laudatur et alget.
Satyr I., 73. The advice is too good to allow of our withholding it in its original expression, though some of our readers may, perhaps, have met with the quotation before. The fact is, we decidedly prefer original quotations; but since the printing of a dictionary of such learned futilities, it is not easy to have them always ready for the occasion. We say thus much in consideration of some of our contemporaries, who might be too modestly apprehensive on the subject, and on whom we beg to impress the literary fact, that a quotation is a quotation, however hackneyed it may be ; with these sole exceptions—" revenons à nos moutons,” and “at the eleventh hour ;" which are really “ too bad,” and should be put down by Act of Parliament.
But it may perhaps be as well, before we go further, to set ourselves right with our readers, and prevent the imputation which they might possibly be disposed to lay at our door, of mixing together two things so totally distinct, as character and conduct. We are not ignorant that it is possible to be a great rogue, and yet keep the fact a close secret; just as some people manage to pass upon the world for arrant knaves, who are in fact no better than mere fools.
But, if character be thus insignificant, what, then, (it may be asked)
is meant by the fuss men make about it, by their boasts of " established houses,” and of being “good men upon 'Change?” We are told that even the far-famed Chartres thought a good name worth having; and would have given his whole fortune to have had his own reputation whitewashed, and to begin life over again, with the advantage of his acquired experience. Now, this apparent anomaly explains the whole mystery. For what did Chartres desire a refacciamiento of his worn-out reputation ? to keep it? no; but on the contrary that he might discount it into ready cash, to a greater advantage than his early inexperience permitted. He knew very well, that character, like any other commodity, to be serviceable, must be used ; and that, miser-like, to preserve it intact, is to bury a talent in a napkin, and to take the certain way for remaining poor to the end of one's days.
Here again, some of our readers may think they have discovered a mare's nest; and imagine that we have made a hole in our logic. “How comes it, Mr. Editor,” they will say; or, “Mr. Contributor;" or, “Mr. who else you are ?-how comes it that what is useful to possess, is not injurious to lose? If money is to be made by expending character, how is a man not the poorer, when he has none left to spend i Methinks you are blowing hot and cold with a marvellous facility of alternation.”
“Bah!" we had almost said, but we are habitually polite, and would not insult the meekest of readers, for an hundred copies of our best work; therefore, “ blot it out my tears.” Dele “bah,” Mr. Printer, and print “ hooly and fairly” in its place. Hooly and fairly, then, gentlemen ; soft fire makes sweet malt. You have not given us your best attention. Read our paper, we beseech you, once more; (we don't say thrice, like Horace; however confident that it would please on a tenth repetition :) read it only once more, and you will perhaps discover that there is no such discrepancy as you imagine; and that, if the loss of character be no injury, it is not because it is not on all occasions and under all circumstances positively useless, but because when it is gone, it may, if necessary, very easily be replaced by a counterfeit.
There are, it must be owned, many situations in which the semblance of a character cannot conveniently be dispensed with. Few persons will take a domestic, without the sanction of a sufficient recommendation from his last place. Bankers and merchants are more cautious, and will not trust a clerk with the handling of their cash, their bills, and their notes, without first taking two good and sufficient securities for his honesty. No man can give himself a character, or otherwise we should all be angels; but then if others can give one for us, it amounts to the same thing. We are worth what we can persuade our character-giver to concede to us; and in this we are not worse off for our reputation than for a seat in parliament, which is made out of the votes of many constituents, and is to be had only after a laborious canvas. A dependence on character, however, is not the less a bitter servitude; and happy are they who need not care for the arbilrium popularis auræ, the stinking breath of the multitude, as Coriolanus would have expressed himself. To obtain it, golden opportunities must be postponed, which taken at the tide, might have led to fortune ; but which, when neglected, are confoundedly slow to return. After all, too, character is very often lavished by the public on the least deserving; while, as often, after having been nobly won by a life of exertion, it is lost on a sudden, no living soul can say wherefore;